On my thirteenth birthday, a friend’s mother gave me a present which changed the way I thought about reading. It was books, four of them: Regency Buck and The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, and My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.
My birthday fell at the very end of the school year, so I was set up for a glorious, revelatory summer holiday. I spent most of it with my nose in a book in my parents’ North Oxford garden. Georgette Heyer was everything I had thought Jane Austen would be when I had diligently ploughed through Pride and Prejudice at 12. (No one should be allowed to read Jane Austen before their sixteenth birthday, by the way – it ruins the story at a point when one isn’t nearly old enough to appreciate it. When I was 12 I didn’t think Austen put in nearly enough swooning. Nor did enough people raise that most glorious of Georgette Heyerisms, the cynical eyebrow.) In Elizabeth Bowen I discovered a world of austere, clipped glamour, where people wrote brittle love-letters and were astute and self-knowing. I wanted to be astute and self-knowing when I was 13, although I didn’t manage it very well. But My Brilliant Career was something else altogether. It made me laugh, it made me sad, and it made me furious, and until then I didn’t have any idea that a novel could make me feel so many different things all at once. It also made me want to be a writer, like its heroine. Then I found out that it had been written in 1895, by a 16-year-old girl living in the Australian outback. I was hooked on the romance of this most resolutely anti-romantic of books.
My Brilliant Career purports to be the autobiography of Sybylla Melvyn, the tomboyish daughter of a down-on-his-luck dairy farmer and his ‘full-fledged aristocrat’ wife. Sybylla’s life on her family’s farm consists of a series of unremittingly dreary tasks, but she
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